Self-published authors write about reviews. A lot. They are important to us.
However, while there is a lot of talk about “good reviews” and “bad reviews”, I don’t see a lot of discussion on what makes a review “good” or “bad”. And that’s something that I think any discussion of reviews should touch upon, because there are basically two different ways of judging them and when both rubrics use the same words confusion is bound to follow.
I would describe reviews as either well or poorly written, and also as either favorable or unfavorable. That gives us not simply two classes of reviews (“good” and “bad”) but four, and I think that each of the four deserves some discussion.
Well-written, Favorable: This, obviously, is the best kind of review to get. When someone takes the time to say that she or he enjoyed your book, and to say so in a clear, well-written brief, well, that makes your whole day. These are the kinds of reviews that sell books, the kind that you can quote on the book jacket.
Poorly-written, Favorable: These are a little more problematical. As a reader, when I see a five star review that simply says something like, “This is the bestest book ever, you should buy it right now!” it doesn’t exactly sell me on the work. In fact, when I see a number of extremely favorable but incoherent reviews, I tend to shy away. I understand that people can enjoy a book without being able to explain just why, but I do expect that someone who is taking the effort to write a review has something to say about why this book is a good one. Unless the reviewer is a friend of the author who has been guilt-tripped into leaving a five star rating. (Not that I am claiming that all poorly-written favorable reviews fall into this category, but it’s something I consider. I’m cynical that way.)
Well-written, Unfavorable: I actually learn the most from these kinds of reviews. People who take the time to write about a book that they didn’t enjoy definitely have something to say. And, you know, there have been reviews written by people who didn’t like a book that have ended up selling me on it. For example, I don’t like reading sex scenes. I rather enjoy having sex, but reading about it bores me. I tend to skip past sex scenes in books, actually. So when someone writes a review complaining that the book in question skipped over the “good parts”, I consider that a plus.
In short, a well-written review that can explain why that particular reader didn’t enjoy the book can actually encourage other people to read it.
Poorly-written, Unfavorable: Yeah, we’ve all seen them. Sometimes it’s just “this book sux balls its so dum!“. Sometimes they are lengthy rants that seem to have nothing to do with the book, or take one minor scene and expound on it at great length. These are the only type of review that I would consider reporting to a site and asking to be removed, and then only if it contained offensive language (which most of them seem to).
Personally, I have been very fortunate in my reviews. The people who have taken the time to write a review of Catskinner’s Book are, by and large, very articulate. Not everyone has liked the book, but I haven’t seen anything in a review that I disagreed with. My work is not for everyone, and I do try to make it clear in my promotional materials exactly what I write and what my readers are getting themselves in to.
I know that ranking is important, and that low star reviews can make a book less visible on distributor’s sites. Even so, I would urge authors to look past the star ratings and read seriously what reviewers have to say and how they say it. I would much rather have someone give my work an unfavorable review and explain why than just say it’s great and leave it at that. (I mean, I already know my work is great, I rely on reviewers to tell me something I don’t know.)
In closing, to everyone who has reviewed Catskinner’s Book, no matter what you thought of it, thank you. The fact that people are moved by work to the extent that they take the time to write about it means more than I can say.